Love is what you think you've got when you're nineteen and you've married your high school sweetheart and you're living in your first apartment in a basement underneath a dentist's office and your baby daughter falls asleep at nine and doesn't wake until morning.
But then it's 2:00 a.m. and the baby starts to cry. At 4:00 a.m. she's still crying and your wife Holly can't tell what's wrong. At 5:00 a.m. you're supposed to go goose hunting with your dad, but the baby is still crying. You're almost out the door when Holly stops you. "I'm your wife, this is your baby. You have to choose." Love is nowhere around.
That's Duane, in 1958, and he hasn't figured out how to talk about it—or exactly what love is.
Based on a collection of Ray Carver's short stories, WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, the film graphs, in "epic" style, the life history of Duane Fraser, of Yakima, Washington. Things start out just fine for Duane—with his wife, baby daughter, and a good job on the night shift at the mill. But Duane doesn't know anything about love, nor can he talk about how that feels. When he can't say what he wants to say, he throws a pickle jar through a window. In this way, love keeps getting away from him.
Duane keeps moving south, leaving behind a string of cheap rental houses and used cars. By the time he's 40, he's in detox for the second time, he's squandered a wife and two children, and he's scared to death. By 1980, forty-one, graying and sober, he reaches Albuquerque. It's there, with his 22-year-old daughter, that he begins to learn one or two things above love.
The film is in 13 parts, or stories—each cathartic and each marked by love—or by the rage, revenge or shame which possesses Duane when he falls short of it. They're the watershed moments of Duane's life—the kind that flash through your mind in the six seconds before death, the ones that close doors for good. The moments are "sutured," or strung together, like beads on a wire, graphing Duane's life from 19 to 53. Between the beads, between each story, are indeterminate gaps of time, or silence, which is where much of the unsayable gets said.
By 1992, Duane's been happily married to his second wife Laura for nine years. One stormy night they drive to their weekly bingo game. There's a van parked in their usual parking space, and inside there is a young couple dressed in denim and leather in his and Laura's regular seats. The boy wears an earring and is cheating at bingo. This drives Duane crazy.
In the bathroom, Laura discovers that she's "spotting" again. When she tells Duane, he says, "This is the worst bingo night in history." Later, at home, there's an awkward hug and some terrified whispered words about the "spotting." Laura goes to bed. Duane gets out a small tape recorder and speaks into the microphone. He notes that Laura is sick again. "Why not someone else? Why not those people tonight?" He curses the bingo players. "If you only knew. If only someone would tell you. I'll tell you what to expect, after the denim and the earrings, after touching each other and cheating at bingo." Duane turns off the machine, pockets the tape and carries his coffee cup into the kitchen. Then he gets his embroidery hoop from the den, threads a needle with light blue cotton and begins to sew.
"One of Mr. Carver's great gifts is to make audible the eloquence of the 'apparently' inarticulate," writes Michael Wood in the New York Times. Duane Fraser just loses track of who he is and what he wants. He's never said out loud what he values nor figures out how to get it in his life. When he finally hears himself speak about love, he is startled by his own memories. What do we talk about when we talk about love? Ask Duane.
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